Publish date:

Oklahoma Has Learned to Live With Its Defense Ahead of a Do-or-Die Season Finale

The Sooners have made just enough stops to stay atop the Big 12, but the chorus of doubters has turned up the volume as the stakes have risen.

It took five days for Lincoln Riley to go from defiant to resigned. Last week, tired of repeated questions about how his defense gave up 501 yards through the air in a 48–47 win against Oklahoma State, the Oklahoma coach reminded everyone of the stat that matters most.

“If being 9–1 is disarray—we’ll define it what it is,” Riley said last Monday as the Sooners prepared to face Kansas. “Our defense has had a hand in winning all of the nine games that we’ve had this year. But do we need to improve? Yes. I’m not looking the other way. But at the same time we’ve got a team that’s very capable of winning a championship right now, but our focus right now is getting better, and putting ourselves in position to do that, which we’ve done up to this point this season.”

When the questions kept coming, Riley doubled down. “By Big 12 standards, we’re winning a bunch of games, so I know that,” he said. “So you can put all those stats every which way you want, go look at the Big 12 records in the last four years of teams and tell me which one you would rather be.”

On Saturday, the Sooners improved to 10–1. But their defense allowed Big 12 bottom feeder Kansas—a team that had already fired its coach—to average 9.7 yards a carry in Oklahoma’s 55–40 win. The result wasn’t in doubt in the second half, but Riley was clearly alarmed that his defense got abused on the ground by a team that entered Saturday averaging four yards a carry against everyone else. “I can't sit here and say something that’s not true,” Riley said. “We didn’t take the step that I felt like we would take. We felt like we’d defended the run well all year. We really put a lot of emphasis on our pass coverage, which we felt was better, and then we sprung some new leaks. But no matter if teams are throwing it, running it—it don't matter. You've got to tackle.”

There is little else Riley can do at this point about a defense that may already have cost Oklahoma a berth in the College Football Playoff. If Alabama, Clemson, Notre Dame and Michigan win out—or if Georgia beats Alabama—even a 12–1 Big 12 champion Oklahoma would be on the outside looking in based on what we’ve seen so far from the playoff selection committee. “As you dig deeper, you see a great quarterback, one of the top offenses in the country with a lot of playmakers, but you also notice particularly in the last two weeks that the defense has struggled and that their offense is carrying them,” selection committee chair Rob Mullens said last week after Oklahoma’s Bedlam win. “That’s all part of the conversation.”

Oklahoma has the most balanced, explosive offense in the nation. The Sooners lead the country in yards per play at 8.8. They lead No. 2 Alabama (8.0) by nearly a full yard. They rank No. 1 in the nation in yards per rush (6.9). They rank second behind Alabama (11.8) in yards per pass attempt (11.4). Quarterback Kyler Murray may be the nation's best player. He is second in the FBS behind Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa (12.1) in yards per pass attempt (11.9). Murray has run for 711 yards and averaged 7.1 yards a carry and probably would lead the Big 12 in rushing if that's what his team needed him to do. (And it may need him to run more. By the end of the Kansas game, Kennedy Brooks was Oklahoma’s lone remaining healthy scholarship back.) But none of that matters if the Sooners can’t start stopping someone soon.

The Sooners might still be able to make the playoff with some help. Should Ohio State beat Michigan and go on to win the Big Ten, the Sooners might stack up more favorably. But Riley has more pressing concerns than the playoff, though. Assuming Texas beats Kansas, the Sooners must win Friday at West Virginia to earn a berth in the Big 12 title game. The Mountaineers average 7.1 yards a play, and while not as balanced as Oklahoma, they’ll happily take yards through the air or on the ground depending on what the defense gives them.

SI Recommends

In the past three weeks, Oklahoma has proven adept at allowing yards in a variety of ways. In a 51–46 win against Texas Tech, they played more zone and got carved up by Texas Tech’s quarterbacks for 366 yards and four touchdowns. In the Bedlam win, the Sooners committed to stopping Oklahoma State’s run game and got torched through the air for 501 yards and three touchdowns, including a 24-yard score on fourth-and-12 that gave the Cowboys a chance to win with a two-point conversion.

Saturday, Oklahoma committed to stopping the pass and Kansas back Pooka Williams rumbled for 252 yards and two touchdowns on 15 carries. “We didn’t tackle at all—really the whole night,” Riley said. “That’s really the story.” Said interim defensive coordinator Ruffin McNeill: “I thought we had guys in pretty good position. We’ve just got to finish those plays. I thought the guys prepared well last week. I’ll watch the film and see what we have to do better.”

Riley already fired coordinator Mike Stoops after the Sooners’ 48–45 loss to Texas. McNeill can’t do much to change the scheme the players spent the offseason learning. He obviously can’t get new players now. The concern in Norman is that Oklahoma might waste a historically great offense while still trying to figure out its defense. Murray is signed to a contract with the Oakland A’s, and based on what his agent Scott Boras told The Athletic earlier this year, that contract dictates this will be his last year of college football. (Neither Murray nor anyone at Oklahoma have made any definitive statements regarding that matter.)

In the offseason, Riley will seek a defensive coordinator who is his analogue on that side of the ball. He’ll also have to continue the search for the kind of player Oklahoma has been missing for a decade. Former Sooners coach Barry Switzer nailed Oklahoma’s biggest personnel issue back in 2012. “We don't have the Tommie Harrises or Gerald McCoys squatting down there in the middle,” Switzer told the Tulsa World. Six years later, the issue persists.

Dominant defensive tackles are the most valuable commodity in the recruiting world, and Oklahoma has failed to sign them. They’re critically important in the Big 12 because quarterbacks get rid of the ball so fast that pressure from the edge often simply can’t get there fast enough. Pressure up the middle, however, can disrupt the run game and the quick passing game. The Sooners know what they’re looking for, too. Oklahoma was the first program to offer Houston’s Ed Oliver, who is built to dominate in the Big 12. But Oliver’s finalists were Houston and LSU. Riley and company will have to work hard to find the next Oliver or Dre’Mont Jones—the Ohio State defensive tackle also has the perfect body type to play against the offenses Oklahoma must face—to pair with whatever scheme the next coordinator brings.

But that’s a concern for the future. This week, the Sooners must find a way to slow West Virginia enough to allow the offense to outscore the Mountaineers. As poorly as Oklahoma’s defense played in the Oklahoma State game, a fourth-quarter fumble forced by tackle Neville Gallimore and recovered by linebacker Kenneth Murray probably made all the difference.

That’s why McNeill has stressed the acronym FIDO to his players. Forget It and Drive On. Mountaineers quarterback Will Grier will connect on some deep balls this week. The Sooners will give up yards and points. The defense may get ripped after the game. But as long as they score one more point than West Virginia and make it to the Big 12 title game, it’ll be good enough.

For now.